Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road

by Rob Schmitz


4/5 stars

Our shelves are full of books about China’s great rise in wealth, but Street of Eternal Happiness uses life on a Shanghai street to show fortune and success don’t always play out fairly. Some make money and claw their way up, but there are hardworking Chinese people who struggle to fit into the system or make it work for them.

“Across the street at the sandwich shop, CK’s struggle with the system was not a longing to defeat it, but to control and master it, navigating it successfully on his terms so he could use it for his own means. Farther down the street, Zhao had left her home village and has astutely navigated China’s constant economic shifts all the way to her corner flower shop. She had made sacrifices along the way, but with each step she gained a greater understanding of the system that she would pass on to her sons.”

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Rob Schmitz, the China correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, lives with his family on a street in old Shanghai called Street of Eternal Happiness. This three-kilometre street goes through the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession and its politically intriguing history, from the French to the Japanese and decades of communist rule to the rush of new capitalism.

Schmitz details his daily interaction with the flower seller raising two sons, the man who sells scallion pancakes and the people whose homes have been destroyed to build new apartment blocks – including the one Schmitz lives in. It is an interesting portrayal of relationships, showing the tension in some, the absurdness of others.

The in-depth profiles depict daily life and originate from a radio series he did for Marketplace, a business show. The theme of personal finances, investment and security runs throughout the book.

Schmitz has a sympathetic ear, and he creates rich characters and dialogue. The close relationships he forms with these people pay off – including a great scene in a home-church. His characters also come from different generations, which offers an interesting window into China’s family structures.

The storyline is conveniently helped back into history by a box of letters Schmitz finds, describing a decade-long Cultural Revolution-era relationship between an imprisoned capitalist and his abandoned wife and family who lived on his street. The Cultural Revolution figures large as context for Schmitz’s story and he shows how it reverberates through the younger generations.

“Just talk to any Chinese who lived through that time,” one of his characters says. “We all have the same stories.”

Schmitz puts himself directly at the centre of the narrative without revealing much of how these people affected the life he and his family lived on the same street. He reveals more of himself when Auntie tries to lure him into her dodgy investments.

“She seemed to be waiting for me to respond. I squirmed in my seat. She was a good person who was making bad choices. It was hard to watch her throw her money away like this, and now she was trying to pull me into this mess, too.

“‘Auntie, I think you should be careful about putting your savings into this,’ I said measuredly. ‘I searched on the internet and there were a lot of people who said Gatewang is a scam.’”

Richer context would have made their stories even better. Sometimes the broader context of China is missing. For example, the timeliness of this book is important as it captures the early part of China’s economic slowdown. Schmitz does not explore the cultural and social implications as deeply as he could have, although the entire book is about change.

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“The Chinese had evolved into a people who had learned to detect the slightest ideological shifts in the ruling hierarchy so that they could quickly recalibrate their positions, protecting themselves and their families. Adjustment to ever-changing surroundings was a rule of life in China.”

Schmitz received pre-publication praise from a long list of foreign correspondents who have written books about China in the past decade. This book fits into that China-specific genre very well, along with Peter Hessler, Evan Osnos, Leslie T. Chang or Michael Meyer. Schmitz is also a former Peace Corps Volunteer, which has a rich tradition of volunteers returning to host countries as journalists.

Street of Eternal Happiness is an enjoyable and entertaining book about the goals of the ordinary, working-class Chinese who are at the heart of the conflict between upward mobility and China’s frustrating system of corruption and bureaucracy.